Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part II

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in the series; part one was published yesterday.

5. CIA may have pulled officers from Beijing embassy following OPM hack. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June 2015, when hackers broke into the computer system of the US Office of Personnel Management. The office, known as OPM, handles applications for security clearances for agencies of the federal government.ch The breach gave the unidentified hackers access to the names and sensitive personal records of millions of Americans who have filed applications for security clearances. In late November it was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pulled a number of officers from the United States embassy in Chinese capital Beijing, following the massive cyber hacking. The irony is that, according to The Washington Post, the records of CIA employees were not included in the compromised OPM database. The latter contains the background checks of employees in the US State Department, including those stationed at US embassies or consulates around the world. It follows that US diplomatic personnel stationed abroad whose names do not appear on the compromised OPM list “could be CIA officers”, according to the paper.

4. Provisional IRA ‘still broadly in place’, says Northern Ireland police chief.. On July 28, 2005, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which fought British rule in Northern Ireland for decades, announced that was ceasing all paramilitary operations and disbanding as of that day. Three years later, the Independent Monitoring Commission declared that the PIRA’s Army Council, which steered the activities of the militant organization, was “no longer operational or functional”. In the ensuing years, which have seen the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that restored peace in Northern Ireland, it has been generally assumed that the PIRA had ceased to exist. In August, however, George Hamilton, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told reporters that “some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place” in the area. Hamilton was speaking in reference to the murder earlier that month of Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast. McGuigan, a 53-year-old father of nine, was a former member of the PIRA, who had fallen out with the organization. He was gunned down at his home, allegedly in retaliation for the murder last May of Gerard Jock Davison, a former commander of the PIRA, who was also shot dead in the Markets area of Belfast.

3. US Pentagon may have doctored intelligence reports on the Islamic State. Many Middle East observers, including this website, have made notably dire projections about the continuing reinforcement and territorial expansion of the Islamic State. In August, a leaked US intelligence report published by the Associated Press said the Islamic State’s strength had remained stable throughout 2014 and 2015, despite a US bombing campaign. However, earlier assessments by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which were communicated to senior US policymakers, including President Barack Obama, were far more optimistic about America’s ability to defeat the militant group. Why the discrepancy? According to The Washington Post, which published the story in late August, officials with the US Central Command (CENTCOM), the Pentagon body that directs and coordinates American military operations in Egypt, the Middle East and Central Asia, had systematically doctored the conclusions of intelligence reports about the Islamic State before passing them on to American leaders. It appears that the evidence pointing to deliberate manipulation of intelligence assessments was convincing enough to prompt the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General to launch an official probe into the matter.

2. China and Taiwan swap jailed spies in historic first. Few ongoing intelligence conflicts are as fierce as the one that has been taking place between China and Taiwan since 1949, when the two countries emerged following a bitter civil conflict between communist and nationalist forces. Observers were therefore surprised when, two weeks ahead of a historic November 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the two countries announced a spy swap. The exchange, which took place in secret in late October, was the first of its kind in the history of the two bitter rivals. Taipei released Li Zhihao, a mysterious Chinese intelligence officer known in spy circles as “the man in black”, who had been arrested in 1999 and was serving a life sentence. In return, Beijing freed Chu Kung-hsun and Hsu Chang-kuo, two colonels in Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau, who were arrested in mainland China’s nearly a decade ago. It is believed that they were the highest-ranked Taiwanese spies imprisoned in China. Their release, therefore, marks an unprecedented development in Chinese-Taiwanese relations.

1. Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, now officially sharing intelligence in war against ISIS. The increased involvement of major powers in Syria has been arguably the greatest intelligence-related development of 2015. The United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, are only some of the state and non-state actors that are now actively engaged on the ground in Syria, both with armies and with intelligence personnel. A significant related development is the growing relationship between the intelligence apparatus of US ally Iraq and a number of countries with which Washington has an adversarial relationship. Intelligence-sharing had been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran. But in September of this year, Iraq entered the intelligence alliance for the first time. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It is staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who pass on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. In October, The Washington Times reported that Iraq had been fully integrated into the Russian-led intelligence-sharing alliance, and that the Iraqi government was already using Russian-supplied intelligence in its war against the Islamic State, according to officials in Baghdad.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 31 December 2015 | Permalink

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part I

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in the series; part two is available here.

10. Is the United States military sharing intelligence with Syria? Officially, the US government is opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Washington has repeatedly stated that peace in Syria can only be achieved if the Assad family abandons power. But could it be that the common goal of combatting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked groups is prompting a behind-the-scenes collaboration between the two countries? In a report published recently in The London Review of Books, veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that America’s military leadership had secretly shared intelligence with Damascus in an effort to aid al-Assad’s efforts to defeat Islamist groups in Syria. What is more, Hersh alleged that the White House, including US President Barack Obama, had not authorized the intelligence sharing and was not aware of the secret arrangement. If Hersh’s sources are correct, this development would indicate a growing gap between the White House and the Pentagon over America’s position toward the Syrian Civil War.

9. After much speculation, the Mossad gets a new director. For years, intelligence observers have monitored the growing rift between Israel’s primary intelligence agency, the Mossad, and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In sharp contrast to the Likud party chairman, the Mossad has consistently argued that Iran voluntarily halted its nuclear program before 2012, and that establishing peace with the Palestinians is far more critical for Israel’s security than halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Moreover, senior former Mossad officials have joined calls urging Netanyahu to stop criticizing Washington’s Middle East policy and work together with the White House. In early December, the Israeli Prime Minister announced in a hastily announced press conference in Jerusalem that Yossi Cohen, a 30-year Mossad career officer, would lead the agency. Cohen left the Mossad in 2013 to chair Israel’s National Security Council and advise the prime minister, with whom he is believed to have a very close personal relationship. Does his new appointment mean that the Mossad will adopt a more pro-Likud stance on Israel’s foreign policy? Given the urgent regional pressures that Israel faces, it should not be long before we begin to find out.

8. The CIA was running a double spy inside German intelligence. In 2015, the relationship between the US and Germany continued to be negatively affected by the revelation two years ago that the National Security Agency had bugged the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, American intelligence agencies appear to have also targeted German government secrets using human assets. In July of 2014, Germany //expelled// the Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Berlin, following the arrest of Marcus R., a 31-year-old, low-level clerk at the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany’s external intelligence agency. More details about the double spy emerged at his trial this year. The court was told that the spy may have given his American handlers information on the real identities, as well as operational aliases, of nearly 3,500 German intelligence operatives. German government prosecutors alleged that Marcus R. spied for the CIA for approximately two years, during which he supplied the American spy agency with around 200 classified German government documents in exchange for around €25,000 —approximately $30,000.

7. Who killed Alberto Nisman? In January of this year, Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and senior members of her cabinet, of having deliberately obstructed a terrorism investigation. It concerned the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, which killed nearly 100 people. For years, Israeli authorities have accused Iran of perpetrating the attacks. But Nisman claimed that senior Argentine politicians colluded with the government of Iran to obstruct the investigation into the attacks, in exchange for lucrative commercial deals with Tehran, involving oil and arms exports. Then, on January 19, just hours before he was due to give Congressional testimony on the subject, Nisman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment, which had been locked from the inside. In response, President Kirchner accused the Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado (SIDE) of feeding Nisman fabricated information implicating her and her government minsters in a fictional collusion with the Islamic Republic, and then killing him in order to destabilize her rule. She has since dissolved SIDE and charged its leadership with involvement in Nisman’s killing.

6. NSA allegedly spied on every major French company. In June of this year, French President Francois Hollande convened an emergency meeting of the Conseil de la Défense, the country’s highest national security forum, to discuss revelations that the United States spied on three French heads of state, including himself. Documents leaked by American defector Edward Snowden appeared to implicate the US National Security Agency (NSA) in spying on President Hollande, as well as on Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, who ruled France from 1995 to 2012. Later that same month, however, further reports published by WikiLeaks suggested that the NSA collected information on export contracts by French companies and sought inside information on France’s position on international trade negotiations. According to the documents, the NSA target list included every major French company, including car makers Peugeot and Renault, banking conglomerate BNP Paribas, as well as Credit Agricole, one of Europe’s leading agricultural credit unions. It is one thing to collect political or military information on a foreign country; it is quite another to spy for financial reasons, as the US itself has argued before. But if the WikiLeaks documents are factual, it would mean that even Washington fails to refrain from economic espionage.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2015 | Permalink

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2014, part II

Angela Merkel and Barack ObamaBy J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | intelNews.org
Since 2008, when we launched this website, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence and espionage, striving to provide an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2014 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2015 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories below, which are listed in reverse order of importance. This is part two in the series. Part one is here.

5. China stops using US-made communications hardware, fearing espionage. Authorities in China removed for the first time this year Apple products from a government procurement list, because of fears that they are susceptible to electronic espionage by the United States. The products that have been removed from the list include the iPad and iPad Mini, as well as MacBook Air and MacBook Pro products –though interestingly the inventory of removed items does not include Apple smartphone products. There are unconfirmed reports that Russia is about to act likewise, as some Russian lawmakers in the State Duma want deputies with access to classified government information to be banned from using iPhones and iPads, among other Apple products. Do they know something we don’t?

4. Western spy agencies secretly collaborating with Assad regime. Back in 2013, the United States and other NATO allies were preparing to go to war with Syria, in order to help topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, has prompted a remarkable U-turn in Western policy on Syria. Last January, the BBC confirmed that secret meetings were being held between Western intelligence officials and senior members of the Syrian government, aimed at “combating radical Islamist groups” in Syria. There are even compelling rumors that American spy agencies are sharing intelligence, and even weapons, with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is now seen by Washington as a force that can help neutralize ISIS. What a difference a year can make!

3. US, Cuba, exchange alleged spies as part of rapprochement. Public spy-swaps between adversary governments are extremely rare occurrences. What makes the recent exchange of spies and alleged spies between Washington and Havana even more remarkable is that it appears to be part of a wider warm-up in relations between the two neighboring nations, which have remained virtually frozen since 1960, when the Eisenhower administration broke off all official diplomatic contacts with the Caribbean island. Still, there is one aspect of this very public exchange that remains a mystery: Washington is refusing to provide information about Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban intelligence officer who spied for the United States until his arrest by the Cubans in 1995. He was part of the exchange and is now believed to be on American soil.

2. NSA spy leaks continue to cause diplomatic headaches for Washington. The NSA has seen itself feature in news headlines more times than ever before this year. For an Agency that relies on secrecy and a low public profile, this is clearly a regrettable state of affairs. We now know about the existence of the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, described as “something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked”. And we know that the NSA targets allies of the US with the same intensity that it targets its traditional adversaries. This, along with leaks about an alleged CIA operation against Germany, caused Berlin to break all intelligence collaboration with Washington and even expel the CIA station chief in the German capital. Turkey came close to doing the same, according to some sources.

1. Western spy agencies refocus on Russia. It is too early to proclaim a Cold War 2.0, but there is no question that Western intelligence agencies have actively began to refocus on Russia more intensely than at any time since the collapse of communism in 1991. This is especially noticeable in the United Kingdom, where military intelligence agencies are reportedly scrambling to rehire retired Russian-language analysts, due to the crisis in Crimea. Meanwhile, this past November Britain’s civilian spy agencies launched a new drive to recruit Russian-language speakers. According to some, the Cold War never ended. IntelNews regulars will recall that, in March of 2013, Oleg Gordievsky, the Soviet KGB’s former station chief in London, who defected to the UK in the 1980s, alleged in an interview that Russia operates as many spies in Britain today as it did during the Cold War.

[Second of two parts. Part one is here]

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2014, part I

Happy New YearBy J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | intelNews.org
Since 2008, when we launched this website, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence and espionage, striving to provide an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2014 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2015 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories below, which are listed in reverse order of importance. The stories are presented in two parts; part two will be published tomorrow. This is part one in the series. Part two is here.

10. South Korean ex-spy chief jailed for bribery and political interference. Much of the world’s media has focused on the seemingly endless stream of lunatic antics by the corrupt government of North Korea. But corruption is also prevalent south of the 38th parallel. The year 2014 saw the disgraceful imprisonment of Won Sei-hoon, who headed South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) from 2008 to 2013. Last September, a court in Seoul heard that Won ordered a group of NIS officers to “flood the Internet” with messages accusing South Korean liberal election candidates of being “North Korean sympathizers”. Prosecutors alleged that Won initiated the Internet-based psychological operation because he was convinced that “leftist adherents of North Korea” were on their way to “regaining power” in the South. A few months earlier, Won had been sentenced to prison for accepting bribes in return for helping a private company acquire government contracts.

9. Australia spied on US law firm representing Indonesia in trade talks. Spying for direct commercial gain is viewed as a taboo by Western intelligence agencies, who claim to focus their efforts solely on matters directly relating to national security. But according to documents leaked in February, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) targeted Mayer Brown, one of the world’s largest law firms, because it represented the commercial interests of the Indonesian state in commercial negotiations with Canberra. To make things worse, the documents also show that that the Australian agency offered to share the intelligence collected from the operation with its American counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA). After Indonesia withdrew its ambassador from Australia, the two countries signed a joint agreement aimed at curbing their intelligence activities against each other.

8. Hezbollah leader’s senior bodyguard was a Mossad agent. It turns out that the man who directed the personal security detail of the secretary-general of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was an agent of Israeli intelligence. According to multiple sources in Lebanon and Israel, Mohammed Shawraba, 42, who was arrested earlier this year by Hezbollah’s counter-intelligence force, and is now undergoing trial, was able to penetrate the highest levels of the Shiite militant group and leaked sensitive information to Israel for several years prior to his capture. In 2008, Shawraba was promoted to director of the group’s Unit for Foreign Operations, also known as Unit 910, which collects information on Israeli activities abroad.

7. Public fight breaks out between Congress and the CIA. The intensity of the media’s focus on the recently published summary of the Congressional report on CIA interrogation practices is understandable. Having said that, we have known about the CIA’s use of waterboarding for years, and the CIA’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ goes back to the 1960s, so nobody can claim to have been shocked. What is perhaps more revelatory is the incredibly public spat between the Agency and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The CIA’s own inspector general found that Agency officers spied on Congressional staff investigating the CIA’s use of torture in interrogations. CIA Director John Brennan apologized for the incident, but many are wondering how this will affect intelligence oversight in years to come.

6. Turkey in turmoil as dozens arrested for spying on PM, spy chief. Turkey’s political system appeared to be sinking deeper into crisis this year, as over 100 police officers, some of them senior, were arrested for illegally wiretapping the telephones of high-level government figures, including the Prime Minster and the intelligence chief. They included two former heads of Istanbul police’s counterterrorism unit. Another 13 were later indicted for systematic “political and military spying” against senior government figures. However, critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government noted that one of the police officers arrested is the former deputy chief of the Istanbul police department’s financial crimes unit, which earlier this year led an investigation into alleged corrupt practices by senior members of the Erdoğan cabinet.

[First of two parts. Part two is here]

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2012

Happy New YearBy J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Ever since we launched this website in 2008, we have been monitoring daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence and espionage, striving to provide an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. In the past year, we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories, some of which made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media industry. In anticipation of what 2013 may bring, we decided to take a look back to the year that just ended by compiling a list of what we think are the ten most important security- and intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. The stories below are listed in reverse order of importance. Do you agree with our choices? Have we missed something important? Share your thoughts.

10. South African spy officials faked threats to increase budget. The historical tendency of spy agencies to overstate security threats in order to secure governmental funds is hardly novel. But officials in the South African Secret Service appear to have gone a step further: they allegedly paid some of their informants to make bogus threats against the government, in order to prompt an increase in counterterrorist funding. The bogus threats were allegedly aimed at creating “a false impression of imminent, unprecedented attacks on black people and African National Congress (ANC) members”. Incredibly, or perhaps predictably, nobody from the Secret Service has been fired in connection with this scandal.

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